Eleven-Year Indie Game: Cortex Command's Long, Strange Trip

The developer of the pixel-physics strategic shooter on what he learned as the indie scene rose, and what took him so long.

A lot has happened in the last 11 years for independent game developers. Steam, the App Store, and console digital distribution have given homebrew projects places to shine alongside the efforts of billion-dollar publishers. Crowd-sourced funding platforms like Kickstarter and inexpensive developer tools like Game Maker and Unity have lowered the medium's significant barriers to entry. The ongoing democratization of development has allowed individuals to earn relevance, respect, and sometimes even a decent living in a field previously dominated by large businesses. Also in the last 11 years, indie developer Daniel Tabar has almost finished his first game.

Tabar has been working on the pixel physics behind this rocketastrophe since he was a schoolboy.

"I feel like I've gone through several lifetimes working on this thing," Tabar told GameSpot. "It's gonna be such a weird feeling to put 1.0 out this year and finally move on to something else." Cortex Command, Tabar's pixel-physics side-scrolling resource-collecting base-building strategy game, has been in development since the 30-year-old man was in secondary school. The game is set for a summer release, but given the trouble he has already gotten into for missing previous projections, that's as fine a point as he'll put on it.

To be fair, Tabar hasn't exactly been chained to a C++ compiler for the last 11 years. Since he began his work on the game he has moved to the US, enrolled in college, dropped out, taken a developer job at THQ, quit, gotten married, gotten divorced, gotten engaged again, and become a US citizen.

"I just wanted to make this damn game. I didn't sign up for doing all this expectation management for this unknown mob of people."

Tabar said he was naive about how much work was involved in game development, but he kept returning to work on Cortex Command. Despite the frustration of building a complex, multilayered project from the ground up, starting with something simpler would go against his nature.

"I've never been comfortable making small games. I just wanted to make this epic thing."

He felt his intermittent approach was vindicated by the struggles of some of his friends who "were killing themselves" to fit their grandiose ideas into the stricter timetables necessary for publishing on platforms like Xbox Live Arcade. Instead, Cortex Command exists entirely on the PC. With no external publishing deals or deadlines, Tabar turned to his future audience to fund his efforts. But the sales of $18 prerelease copies of the game--even when they were explicitly made "as is" with further development not guaranteed--made some purchasers uncomfortable with his drawn-out approach. Tabar has seen similar problems for developers who use Kickstarter to collect capital for their concepts.

"Now you've got these expectations you have to fill from day one, which is a huge burden," he warned those considering Kickstarting their games. Suddenly the lofty project is a serious obligation. Developers have to dedicate time and talent to keeping the crowd informed as well as to managing backer reward logistics. "That is a lot of distraction from actually making the game, and it's something that I don't necessarily feel I would be so comfortable siphoning off a lot of energy toward. … It's something that I've always struggled with; I just wanted to make this damn game. I didn't sign up for doing all this expectation management for this unknown mob of people."

It has been a long, strange trip for Daniel Tabar.

Even in Cortex Command's own community (within which Tabar has found several new friends and colleagues), comments and forum posts harshly criticized his perceived lack of progress. He felt much of the outrage was disproportionate to his $18 asking price--a testament to unexpectedly strong emotional investments. "I completely understand. It's hard to communicate how I do work, which is in this slow way," he said (at least one gap in his public development log stretches on for a year). "I never even considered giving up on this game."

But it wasn't all placating angry mobs and living from presale to presale. Cortex Command won the technical excellence and audience awards at the 2009 Independent Games Festival along with the associated cash payouts. The game was also included in Humble Indie Bundle #2, thanks in part to Tabar's relationship with its founders.

The coming months are looking even better. Tabar is getting married in Paris on August 17, and his studio, Data Realms (specifically, its one other full-time employee), has already laid out the foundation for its next project: a vehicle-based game that integrates an original, deformable physics engine. With work on the new game revved up, Cortex Command is nearly in Tabar's rearview mirror. But not quite yet.

"This is going to be a very fulfilling experience, I think. I hope. Maybe I'll be depressed instead. Who knows."

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Discussion

17 comments
armedvigilante
armedvigilante

hey i need help. i have this game but it wont let me move or switch bodies. basicly the keyboard doesnt work with the game unless i press "/" to bring up console commands. i can aim (using the mouse) though. im using a mac and a wireless keyboard. could the wireless keyboard be the problem? and suggestions

Aufmachen
Aufmachen

Since he began his work on the game he has moved to the US, enrolled in college, DROPPED OUT! A dropout had his feelers out in search of a life of his own,and made it!it can't just be some coincidence like Steve Jobs,Bill Gates,and more....Should I follow in their footsteps?

 

Anyway,I love the game,'cuz it is a very nice time killer when i want to think strategic and tactic thoughts both on the offensive and defensive.Learning from gaming is my favorite hobby

SCHN1TZ3L
SCHN1TZ3L

I remember getting this game on a demo disk from a friend, back when it was one of the earlier builds, and even back then it was fantastically addictive, the attention to even the tiniest details is like nothing else out on the market.

 

It's come a long way since then, and it's only improved. Highly recommend you try out the demo if you're interested.

de_graph
de_graph

Independent development is a strange mistress. However most success seems to follow those who just forget timelines, forget the public and forget trying to make a dollar and strictly focus on making something that they personally enjoy.

 

Kickstarter isn't really needed for majority of situations. In all honesty, all the 3-man game dev teams who are pushing their personal game projects on Kickstarter are doing it for the wrong reason. The fact that they are even asking for a few tens of thousands of dollars is really only so they can use it as a full time gig and quit their day jobs. When in reality, the people who build their game projects alongside their everyday lives, fueled and funded only by their passion, is what generates a good indie game anyways.

 

Kickstarter is turning into one of those "too easy to be true" sort of things, in which most of the people with some sort of background or prior success are successful (Brian Fargo, Tim Schafer etc). By no means do I think Kickstarter is a bad idea, but I think people need to realize that you can't bypass the struggle and go straight to the reward.

Scelous1
Scelous1

Yeah, I bought this game on Humble Indie Bundle, expecting it to come out within the next bajillion years.  Let's see if he can actually make that timetable.

Zonno
Zonno

So it's a pixel-physics side-scrolling resource-collecting base-building strategic shooter?

 

No wonder he has worked on it for that long.

gargungulunk
gargungulunk

Neat.  Haven't heard of this game before.

It's on my radar now.

 

It's cool to hear how long it's been in the making, somewhat reaffirming to anything I'm not finishing today.

yeah_28
yeah_28

I saw some footage of the game and read a bit, it looks excellent, gameplay seems deep, unique, and very addicting.

 

The determination of this guy to finish it after so long is admirable.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

It's very cool to see someone insist in a personal project like this!

Hope the game leaves up to his expectations when criticized by others.

 

The screenshot above got my attention!!

stailcookie
stailcookie

SNES style is my favorite retro-game genre.  It would have been great if they had a gameplay video to add to this because just the screen pic has peaked my interest.

Bozanimal
Bozanimal

These are the stories that keep me coming back to Gamespot.

 

Like the story about Imangi Studios or the video documentary about Boston developers, these entries remind one of the Discovery Channel, in a good way. Keep up the good work.

Muskeljens
Muskeljens

 @armedvigilante Play the tutorial and it will tell you quite specifically that you MUST bind your keyboard keys before you can play. Go into the menu and set your keyboard keys, it should work.

shimo1989
shimo1989

 @Aufmachen Please don't. Sure, there's the 5% or so that actually succeeds in something after dropping out, but you never hear about the 95% that ends up at Wal-Mart or McDonald's. The chances are too low for you to be betting your entire life on.

armedvigilante
armedvigilante

 @Muskeljens thankyou! i read that but i didnt understand until now that you have to press the keys that you want to be for that job. 

RedLegZeff
RedLegZeff

 @shimo1989  I'd say less then 5%. It's just the ones who do that have the intelligence to do something big are driven and have big ideas. Not to mention they usually drop out of places like harvard.